Neil LaBute’s In The Company of Men is described as black comedy. In some twisted universe, perhaps this is a comedy of a sort, but I see something else, perhaps several things. This is an exploration of masculinity, yes, but it is also an exploration of stereotypical locker-room, hate-filled testosterone-filled masculinity, one that describes men as animals, perhaps lions, that exist only to kill or be killed whether it is to take advantage of other men in a corporate jungle that they consider weak or vulnerable or to take advantage of women whom they consider vulnerable, weak, and easily impressionable. It is the manifestation of the worst kind of social Darwinism become all too real.
In this pack, Chad is the dominant leader and Howard is the follower. Howard is actually the one who may have some justification for feeling wronged by an ex-girlfriend. However, this does not excuse him for failing to think for himself and following the party line that all women are interested in taking advantage of men to make men look like fools. But Chad has no perceivable excuse for such behavior except his adherence to the code of kill or be killed. This is something that he learned from home, from school, or his environment. Given his “god-like” physical appearance, this may even be something he learned that he was expected to do as he was growing up from others around him.
Ken Plummer describes the typical “’big wheel” — success, status, and the need to be looked up to.” This triad is usually one that equates sexuality with success (Kimmel et al 2004: 182). Chad embodies that easily in a bottle, but I wonder what else he is holding in, something that the genie of depression or extreme violence that will become a mass murder of regret. From a purely common sense perspective Chad embodies what feminists recognize as themes that stereotypically embody make sexuality: violence, coercion, pressure, and objectification. (Kimmel et al 2004: 182).
Howard may be a stereotypical middle manager, but in this instance he is a follower, a weak male that may as well be anti-masculine to Chad. He becomes someone for Chad to manipulate in front of and behind his back. Howard attempts this masculine manipulation with Christine (reluctantly, though, because he is pressured into it by Chad) in his “tryst” with Chad as well as with Chad himself and the work assignments. He attempts to manipulate the situation at the office even further by sending Chad back to the home office so he can be alone with Christine for the weekend when he realizes that instead of “the game” he is playing with Chad, he seems to believe that he has fallen in love with Christine. This is in spite of the front of being an embittered and cynical male interested only in conquests and manipulations.
By the time Howard is pressured into this tryst with Chad, Chad already sees the writing on the wall: Howard is not a “real man,” and he deserves to be manipulated and destroyed as well. Hence, the result becomes the logical conclusion that Howard is being “surprisingly” demoted into a member of the team and not the leader. Howard was always the embittered male who seemed to be complaining before and after the tryst. But during the tryst, he vainly attempts to assert himself with Christine, with Chad, and even with his mother. He fails miserably because his is the Anti-Male to Chad’s Uber-Male.
Labute shapes each of these characters as a stereotype, a two-dimensional stereotype. This may be one of the only movies I have seen in memory where there is absolutely nothing about these two male characters that is likeable or redeemable. Nothing. And Christine is another unredeemable feminine stereotype, one that is naïve and submissively manipulated without fighting back at all, except to disbelieve Howard on reflex. After curling up into a ball after she realizes that she has been manipulated she reverts to her introverted shell where she does not act in the world but reacts. Even when Howard returns to her to declare his love for her (and accusingly questions as he yells), she does nothing. I do believe that Howard, in his own passively herd-like mentality, he does love her as much as he can.
Out of all of the characters, I did wonder when and if Chad would ever burst from some emotional strain. He never seemed to flinch. He calls to mind the embodiment of the theory that “gender role status can lead a male to exaggerate his masculinity” overcompensating for something into a gender role that is dangerously alienating (Kilmartin 2010: 146). I waited and waited for someone in this film to commit suicide, Chad most likely, but alas there was no real outlet, no relief in this film. It left me feeling ill and nauseous in the worst possible way. While this embodies one aspect of masculinity, it embodies a very stereotypical one and a very unhealthy one and I would choose to never ever see this film again except to explore unhealthy personalities.
Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.). (2004). Male Sexualities. In Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities (pp. 178-195). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kilmartin, C. (2010). The Inner Reality: Phenoenonological Perspectives On Male Development. In The Masculine Self (4th ed., pp. 142-156). Cornwall-On-Hudson: Sloan Publishing.